One of the classes I’m taking this semester is called Youth Discipleship. It’s been an engaging class that I’ve very much enjoyed- especially because it has immediate implications for me, since I have the privilege and honor of discipling some awesome youth at EFC. One of our assignments for class was to watch the move “About A Boy” and analyze how it may relate to Christian discipleship. I submitted my paper and my professor, knowing I do a bit of blogging, encouraged me to adapt it for a blog post, so here it is.
The move stars Nicholas Hoult as Marcus and Hugh Grant as Will, the main characters of this dramedy about the evolution of a relationship between a socially awkward boy (Marcus) and a man (Will) who seemingly has it all. Interwoven into the tapestry that composes the plot are a few bright threads that bring a subtle critique of the American individualism that disregards the needs of others, the struggles of an essentially parent-less boy (he has an absentee father and a self-absorbed, hippie mother) caught in the throes of a vicious social atmosphere, and the blatant apathy of of today’s adult male towards familial responsibilities. This scenario is now the norm for Christian youth workers, and we must adapt and learn to address the issues facing us today. There are 3 main principles that show promise for Christian leaders to draw principles of discipleship from: 1.) the vacuum caused by absentee fathers, particularly for boys, 2.) the mimicry process that occurs in relationships, regardless of intentionality, and 3.) the mutual transformation that occurs in discipling relationships.
Within the last five years or so, there has been a lot of research regarding the male decline in society- which has lead to the question of how the church ought to respond appropriately. “About A Boy,” clearly shows traces of this theme, as the lead character Will has no job, no commitments, and dates casually (going so far as to join a single parents’ group to pick up the ladies). Similarly, Marcus’ father also rejected his responsibilities to his son and comes around only for holidays. This leaves Marcus with very little idea of how to relate to society, except from what he has learned from his “crazy hippie” mother. This leads us to ask, how can we help fill this gap in students’ lives, particularly the boys with absentee fathers/male role models. Much of our job is not only to teach them about Jesus, but now includes teaching them what it means to be a man in an evolving world that seems to be rejecting any sort of masculinity of old.
An interesting part of the movie is how Marcus picks up Will’s mannerisms and demeanor. Marcus begins to glean social cues from Will’s interactions- even if Will did not intentionally go about teaching Marcus societal expectations. Human beings, but particularly young human beings, are naturally mimics. Infants learn by observation and mimicry, they do not understand language yet, so traditional oratory learning is impossible, it’s all mimicked learning. This means that the actions of Christian leaders will likely be passed on to our students- both the good and the bad. This is a powerful tool that can either lead to particular harm or good- if used well, a leader can do positive discipleship simply by being rather than actively pursuing a goal. This leads to stronger affirmation for the student because they do not feel like a project, but rather feel like a valuable human being. Alternatively, however, students can also mimic the negative actions of leaders, which can lead to negative growth in students- thus leaders must be conscious that their actions have behavioral implications for their students.
Finally, this movie clearly illustrates the transformational nature of discipling relationships- not only the character/intellectual transformation of the student, but the transformation that also occurs for the teacher. Not only does Marcus go from the nerdiest kid on campus who gets others beat up for merely hanging out with him, but Will also goes from being the guy that hits on college girls in the bar to bearing the guilt and shame of humiliation with Marcus during the school talent show. Will’s sacrifice of character in that scene has faint echoes of the sacrifice and humiliation of Christ on our behalf. This is the distinguishing factor that separates Christian leadership from other leadership types. Most corporate leadership encourages leadership that ensures the dignity of the teacher isn’t lost- that he/she maintains their power. Christian teaching, as Will picked up on, is based in serving. It requires us to get messy, to get deeply involved with the needs and desires of our students. Much like Christ had to enter into the human condition in order to bring redemption and to teach us the value of life, Christian leaders should make sacrifices in comfort and position in order to ensure the spiritual well-being of our students. Christian discipleship, then, often transforms the teacher as much as it changes the student. When we can model the love Christ has for us, it grows us and teaches us that much more about the nature of Christ’s sacrifice.
Ministry models- every minister has one, even if they don’t call it a “model” or whatever.
Regardless of what you call it, every church leader or pastor has a philosophy of how church should be done. The two predominating models right now are the “missional” model and the “attractional” model.
The attractional model is, well you guessed it, geared at attracting people to church. The idea goes that church, for a lot of people- particularly youth, is super boring. So a lot of people don’t want to come- so we beef up our aesthetic, often times develop a “brand” for our ministries, slap logos on lots of stuff, send out mailers and door hangers, maybe even do a little TV and radio marketing. Generally, we try to make church feel hip and appealing to people who’ve never been to church before. You might attend an attractional church if you regularly hear the following phrases: “We won’t make you do anything weird” or “no perfect people allowed” or “hey! our church is hip, please come”… well maybe not the last one, but you get the idea. You try to get as many people through the doors as you possibly can.
The missional model is, similarly guessable, geared toward sending Christians into their communities to do service for others. The idea for this model is that service is the main way non-Christians can be reached. There is usually a heavy emphasis on relationality and authenticity. Missional churches tend to focus on “local missions trips”, be very small group oriented, have dialectic rather than didactic teaching focuses, and to be all about social justice issues (sex slavery, poverty, famine, lack of water etc).
It’s really easy to paint one side as more Christian than the other. You might also be thinking… man, that was a big strawman of the attractional model. When you paint it like that, it sounds so shallow.
Let me say this first: I love attractional churches. My last few years have been spent studying “attractional” churches and how they do things. Why? Because they’re effective. That being said, there is something to the missional model. Which is exactly what most churches recognize. The thing is, there are some bloggers on the web that are insistent on making this an “either/or” situation rather than a “both/and.”
In my personal experience this has been more from the missional guys. This battle is raging particularly strongly within the realm of Youth ministry, because there has been a lot of talk amongst the community of youth ministers about how effective youth ministries are.
Look to a website like rethinkingyouthministry.com for a good example of some very missional ideas developing within the community of youth leaders. The thing is, for the past 50 years or so, youth ministry has been almost ALL attractional with very little missionality to it. If you’ve ever been to a youth group you know the drill: lots of pizza, lots of games, lots of events, lots of noise, and lots of media. Youth ministry has been all about getting people through the door for a long time. But we are starting to realize that this simply has not been effective. We hear statistics like “80% of faithful youth group attendees will leave the church in their 20’s to never return.” Though there is some disagreement about just how true that statistic is, it’s not so far off-base that everybody is screaming. Most youth pastors and leaders intuitively know that it’s right. So there has been a serious questioning of the attractional model youth ministry has developed.
Youth pastors are growing disenchanted with the lock-ins and the paintball trips, and the trips to the mall for some shopping. They want to start implementing discipleship and theological reflection into their ministries.
This is good and healthy. We need to reevaluate how our youth ministries are run. We need to evaluate why we do the things we do and evaluate what we do. At the same time, we also need to learn caution and discernment when we do this rethinking. My fear is that instead of intentionally thinking through everything we do, those of us in ministry or training for ministry are going to end up just reacting to the current ministry culture rather than developing a robust ministry strategy.
The way that many pastors and youth pastors are beginning to go is almost just a full sprint in the opposite direction of attractional models. They aren’t just trading in their X-Box controllers, they’re throwing them at the TV’s and making a run for it. They’re trying to tear down the entire attractional model. The attractional model is often just considered corporate Christianity in the worst sense- using people as simple objects to be won or lost. I think that this attitude is just as bad if not worse than just attractional churches.
What we need is not to react to perceived wrongs within church culture. What makes ministries ineffective is more than simply retention rate- it’s also conversion rate. This is why we don’t just need one model, we must simultaneously utilize both models if we are going to have effective ministry. The churches that are growing at phenomenal rates- the churches that are growing, not just by transfer growth but by conversion growth as well are using both the attractional/missional model. Churches in the Seattle area like Mars Hill, The City Church, Eastlake, Puyallup Foursquare, etc. are all wildly successful not only in getting new Christians but in developing disciples. To me, Mars Hill in particular has a very committed, intellectually robust congregation that is serving oriented. But from my experience of attending Eastlake for a year or so, there is no church that puts the emphasis on serving the community like Eastlake- but it’s also so attractional your grandma might have a heart attack if she walked into it. But man, does Eastlake serve. I’ve heard Ryan Meeks say, “if you’re a Christian and you aren’t serving here, please find another church.” Probably not quite that nicely, but that’s essentially what he said. This is brilliance. Another thing Eastlake hammers is growth groups, which most churches have now, but they are a very integral part of Eastlake’s ministry.
In the realm of youth ministry, we need to rethink how we do ministry, but that doesn’t mean we need to throw the baby out with the bath water. Don’t just abandon the lock-ins, the X-Boxes, the pizza and the games. Integrate those things with a more robust discipleship method. Don’t just give super basic, spiritually shallow messages, but at the same time don’t make it so exclusive that non-Christians feel out of place, even though you may have a bunch of nice kids there to say nice stuff.
The fact of the matter is kids are so stimulated in their lives today that we need to meet them where they are. That sounds like a missional statement… but it’s advocating for an attractional model. Because we don’t just need one thing. Kids need to be entertained to reach them- but we also need to teach students the value of silence and other spiritual disciplines. We need to make week day services fun and exciting- but we also need to develop community for students. We need to attract students to our churches and ministries with cool sermon series names, branding, and advertisement, but we also need to send missionaries into schools. People have life changing encounters both in the big worship services and when their friends model the life of a Christian for them.
The simple fact of the matter is: students are different. Some are reached by relationality. Others are reached by games, flashing lights, loud music, and a good presentation of the Gospel. When we consider how we do ministry, we have to be careful not to reject traditions just because they’re traditions (for you hipsters we gotta be careful not to pick up dead traditions just cause they’re dead too).
There is definitely something to be said for reconsidering our approaches to things. There is a problem though when we react rather than move forward intentionally thinking through every little thing we do to reach more people.
I want to end this with a tweet that Rick Warren posted. “Jesus used BOTH attractional and missional evangelism. To the unbeliever he said ‘COME AND SEE!’ To the Christian he said ‘GO AND TELL!'”